Yesterday saw the setting of the County Budget for 2017-18. With an election in May this was always a day when we would emphasise the difference between the parties and it did not disappoint. The was lots of Conservative emphasis on keeping spend down and how they have amassed large reserves over the past seven years. Labour wanted to spend to preserve services and give the residents of Suffolk what they need. We felt the Conservatives were cutting too hard but Labour were spending at the top limit of what would be possible.
My approach -on behalf of the LibDeb group- is below, seeking to use the resources available but not take unreasonable risks. In the end the administration carried the day and a further £30 million will be cut from services.
John Field: Deputy Leader of Suffolk Lib Dem Group & County Councillor for Gipping Valley
To support the amendment or not: that is the question? Is this a reasonable attempt to undo some of the damage from cuts or a profligate spending of reserves?
First to outline the context.
For the past five to seven years this Conservative administration has managed within a reducing budget, keeping Council Tax rises to zero while the Government has cut the grant it gives. Government’s view of County finances is affected by its assumption that you have been raising Council Tax by the 2% per year it allows before a referendum is triggered. But you have not, have you? The difference has now reached about £27m per year which adds significantly to the shortfall.
Over the last five years you have consistently overestimated expenditure and underestimated income. Reserves have grown by some £10 million each year while services have suffered. Suffolk’s total revenue reserves have risen from £109.8m to 148.8m. Your contingency or “available” reserve has increased from £1.3m to £38.5m.
You claim that front line services have been maintained at an adequate level and quality by increasing efficiency and by new ways of working. However this depends on “managing demand” and “keeping demand out of the system”. Our residents tell us that this is just a euphemism for cuts and offer anecdotal tales of suffering by vulnerable people not getting the help they need. We don’t hear of highly efficient processes completed in minutes but of ever longer forms and inability to find placements.
We daily see and hear examples of the problems these service shortfalls are causing in the NHS. People medically fit are unable to return home and release a bed for a new patient. This results in a major waste of the NHS budget and a whole range of people who at best wait many months for the treatment that would return them to health and productive activity.
People must be accommodated in £500 per week social service facilities not £500 per night NHS hospitals.
Despite your promises, you have had to raise council tax, a 3% social care precept for two years. This is a step in the right direction but still results in a need for savings of some £31m in 2017-18. Taking a chunk of these savings from the ACS and CYP budgets will make their problems substantially worse.
It is our belief that the County has the capacity to go further towards solving the social care problem. We would not have gone quite as far as the Labour amendment, using substantially but not exactly the line items identified. However it is on the right lines.
We would have added an allocation of £1m to a programme of investment in mental health and wellbeing in schools to reduce problems that detract from Teaching and Learning.
The current level of reserves can be safely reduced at least minimising future damage if not restoring the full level of care required.
The amendment uses £15.66m plus your budget figure of £8.5m, £24.1m from revenue reserves in 2017-18. Over the next three years, until the unknown effect of 100% business rate retention, it would run reserves down substantially but not to a dangerous extent. It would use some £72.3m. That’s all the unallocated reserve and some £23m from service and earmarked reserves. If as we suspect you are overestimating current spend then the total reserves used would be £47m and match the unallocated total}.
There has to be a long term government solution (as in Surrey) to our funding problems but this is a valuable short term move that is affordable.
Therefore we believe that supporting this amendment is a responsible action aimed at limiting further damage to services. Service failure results not just in damage to quality of life, particularly for vulnerable people, but also causes wholesale waste of resources elsewhere in the public sector.
We support this amendment.